Seeking an enduring agreement

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Seeking an enduring agreement

Yeh Young-june
The author is an editorial writer for the JoongAng Ilbo.

Supreme Court Justice Kim Jae-hyung completed his term on Friday. Not only the Korean government, but also the Japanese government, has closely followed his final weeks on the bench. He left the highest court without making a much anticipated ruling on an appeal filed by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries against a lower court’s decision that some of its assets in Korea be sold off to compensate wartime forced labor victims. Japan has warned that a Supreme Court ruling to uphold the lower court’s decision and allowing the liquidation will be a red line in bilateral relations. As Justice Kim finished his term without making a ruling on the thorny issue, the two countries bought time until his successor takes over.

On the same day, Foreign Minister Park Jin traveled to Gwangju and met with two elderly forced labor victims. A consultation body between the government and the civic society formed to gather opinions on how to resolve the issue also held a meeting lately. It was the fourth of its kind and perhaps the final meeting.

President Yoon Suk-yeol already promised to address the issue “quickly” and made the pledge twice in public. In his Aug. 15 Liberation Day speech and during a press conference to mark his 100th day in office, the president vowed to “quickly” restore Korea-Japan relations.
Foreign Minister Park Jin, left, meets with Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi in Tokyo, July 18, to discuss forced wartime labor and other pending issues between the two countries. [YONHAP]

On the day of Park’s trip to Gwangju, Kim Sung-han, head of the National Security Office, hinted at the possibility of holding a Korea-Japan summit soon. The latest developments show a glimpse of the future direction of the Yoon administration. But we have to stop and think deeply if resolving the issue “quickly” is really the best choice even after Seoul and Tokyo have some more time to address the liquidation issue.

Judges speak through rulings, but sometimes they need to clearly voice their opinion. In a speech at his retirement ceremony, Kim said, “Issues that should have been resolved in the arenas of politics and legislation have often come to courts. The judiciary must not try to resolve all problems, and it can’t.” Many interpreted his remarks as referring to the court battle over the formation of the People Power Party’s interim leadership, but it appeared that the judge was also talking about the forced laborer issue.

I do not agree with the view that the issue should not have been sent to the court from the beginning. Whether it is criminal punishments or civil damages, some would still believe the court’s final ruling will do justice. The 2018 Supreme Court ruling that Japanese companies must compensate victims of the wartime forced labor was the territory of the judiciary in which politics cannot intervene, but since the ruling, the need for political settlement arose.

As we have seen over the past four years, foreign companies that reject the ruling will never pay compensation. Forced liquidation of their assets can be a way to follow through with the court decision, but the diplomatic repercussions will be massive. Therefore, we need to find a political solution not contradictory to the court decision within the boundaries of law by compromising the stances of the plaintiffs and the defendants and the positions of the two governments. Before leaving office, Justice Kim said that not all matters can be resolved by the judiciary. His advice may not be far different from what we need to do.

Yoon said he is looking for a plan to compensate the victims while respecting the sovereignty of the two countries. A Korean foundation or fund will likely provide financial resources, while Japan could announce its position on the forced labor issue. Many hardships await the two countries when they try to fine-tune the specifics. How will Korea address the right to indemnity for its payment of the debts on behalf of Japanese companies and whether the Japanese government or companies will really issue an apology?

Another important issue is the political process in Korea. During the presidency of Park Geun-hye, Seoul and Tokyo reached a settlement on the comfort women compensation issue in 2015, but the agreement was thrown away by the Moon Jae-in administration. This time, the government must find an effective solution that will be supported by most of the people and will not be opposed by opposition parties. There is no need to stress the importance of persuading and obtaining an agreement from the victims. If that process is skipped, the victims will go to court again and Japan will delay in finding a diplomatic resolution.

In a nutshell, the Korean government must come up with a resolution that will not be overturned by future governments. Also, it must do its best in negotiating with Japan to win an outcome that will be accepted by the Korean people. To this end, the government must act “quickly” while thinking in a meticulous way.
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